“There is no shortage of water in the desert, but exactly the right amount,”
Edward Abbey wrote in his seminal 1968 book, Desert Solitaire. “A perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.” It is here that the three “hats” of Southwest Utah’s 3HATTRIO call home. Together, Hal Cannon, Greg Istock, and Eli Wrankle have been making music that flows out of the deep and ancient recesses of the Utah Desert, where, Abbey continued, “There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Inspired by Abbey’s chronicle of his sojourn into their homeland wilderness, 3HATTRIO release their third album, SOLITAIRE.
As with Edward Abbey, something about the desert landscape drew each of the band’s members to its solitary wilderness. Hal Cannon (vocals, banjo, guitar) is a storyteller and founding member of The Deseret String Band, the Western Folklife Center, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Eli Wrankle (violin) is a Utah native studying music at Southern Utah University. Greg Istock (vocals, bass, percussion) is an multidisciplinary artist from Florida where he spent thirty years producing and exploring Caribbean music and experimental jazz. Together they’ve made three albums that pioneer a sound that they call American Desert Music, that comes to maturity on Solitaire, produced and recorded by Istock in his painting studio. But where their previous album, 2015’s Dark Desert Night, was covered over in “dusk and dust and dreams” (to borrow from Carl Sandburg), Solitaire finds the early morning sunlight cresting the horizon. If Dark Desert Night was a dialogue with silence, Solitaire is a dance with the rhythm and sonic nuance of the wilderness. And while Dark Desert Night was shrouded in the pitch black cold of the Utah midnight, Solitaire finds itself bathed in the warm light show of the colors that rise from the sandstone in the primal hours of the day. “It’s all about light and energy,” says Cannon. “On the last album, we really discovered what our sound was, but here we found our groove,” says Wrankle as Istock adds, “With Solitaire we wanted to make a dance album, even if it was the dance of a Scorpion.” “We really wanted to capture the energy of the desert,” Cannon continues. “There is an odd combination of feeling insignificant yet feeling powerful in the desert.”
If you’ve spent any time in the desert of southern Utah, you know that light transforms it into an inter-dimensional space. The spaces and formations and colors are vastly different depending on the light, and as the sun and moon move in the sky. It is alive. It is this sense of life that has 3HATTRIO tied to the mystery of the desert. “Greg loves the heat, but also needs to be in the river each day. Eli grew up here so he just lives it with not much fuss. I find the heat oppressive and avoid it if possible,” says Cannon about how each of the band’s members relate to the hot desert day. “The local Native people here are called Paiute, which basically means ‘people of the water.’ Increasingly I’ve come to realize how important these little areas of oasis are where rivers and streams flow. They define life.” SOLITAIRE highlights and celebrates those hidden springs that make life in the desolate landscape possible.
In 2009, twenty-year-old piper and singer Elias Alexander of Ashland, Oregon, was working in the Scottish Highlands.
On a break from tree-planting, he sat down at the edge of a stream. In the quiet rush of the water, music emerged: reels and leaping jigs, the songs of coalminers, boat-builders, and broken-hearted lovers. Pulling a tin whistle from his pocket he began to play along. “Something clicked right there,” Alexander remembers, “and somehow I knew that traditional music was going to become more than just something I did, but something I was wholly dedicated to.” This dedication has culminated in the release of his debut traditional album, Bywater.
Comprised almost entirely of original compositions, Bywater weaves together influences from Alexander’s unique and varied background. While visiting Scotland with family at age fourteen, he was captivated by Gaelic music and culture and began studying pipes upon his return home. “I wanted to make an album that’s very honest as to where I come from. Composing tunes is my way of negotiating this crazy mix of cultures. The tunes are me, within the context of Scottish traditional music.” In 2011, Alexander left college in Vermont and ended up in New Orleans, busking on the streets of the French Quarter and living in a tent. “I was sort of lost, and New Orleans set me on my feet and pointed me towards pursuing music professionally.” You can almost hear the horn lines in tunes like “The Reclamation,” a march underscored by a funky groove that builds until it unleashes into wild, bluesy solos on pipes and fiddle which, were it not for the traditional instrumentation, might feel at home in a Led Zepplin number. After graduating in 2013 with a B.A. in music from Middlebury College, Alexander moved to Boston, the heart of Celtic music in the U.S. There he met and assembled what would become the Bywater Band: Eamon Sefton (guitar), Kathleen Parks (fiddle), and Patrick Bowling (flute, uillean pipes, percussion). Named for both the inspiration of that Highland stream and the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, the band and the eponymous album take the deep and longstanding tradition of Scottish music and bring it into a contemporary, North American context.
Bywater is an ambitious effort that re-imagines the possibilities of the border pipes within the Scottish tradition. Alexander’s fresh and intricately composed melodies are put front and center over driving backing, and played with an unbridled joy and crisp variations reminiscent of Lúnasa. The uniquely rich tone of Alexander’s pipes is also complemented by his warm and soulful voice. The album closes with Earth and Stone, a gorgeous and deeply personal reflection on displacement and the search for home. The song begins in 19th century Scotland, tracing the story of a family forced to emigrate to North America. The second verse moves to a portrait of Alexander’s grandmother, the daughter of immigrant coal miners. In the final verse Alexander explores his own story and feelings of disconnection from the land, from home, and from cultural continuity. The chorus brings the experiences of the three generations together: “How am I to know/which direction’s home/when they’ve sold out from under me/the very earth and stone.”
Despite moments of poignancy, however, an irrepressible current of joy and freedom runs through Bywater. By delving deep into Scottish musical tradition, Elias Alexander & Bywater Band have found solid ground. By allowing themselves to speak their own stories into the tradition with composition, improvisation, and tones of American roots music, they have created something truly special in Bywater.
In the tiny hamlet of Teepee Creek, Alberta,
a community hall lies at the edge of town. A hand-hewn log structure built by the Scandinavian settlers of northern Alberta’s past, it’s been renovated time and again throughout the years by ranchers and oil workers. Tonight, its white-washed walls host the 2011 Ladies Diamond Dinner, a fundraiser for the local rodeo queen program. The hall is at full capacity with women conversing, eating, drinking, and silently bidding on a diamond pendant donated by a local jeweler. A blonde, bedazzled belly-dancer pirouettes and gyrates throughout the delighted crowd, each and all riveted by the exotic scene that has graced their rural farming community. Meanwhile, the next act – a local country singer and songwriter named Matt Patershuk – sits at the side of the room, the only man in the building. This will be his first gig.
Five years later, Patershuk releases his second album, I WAS SO FOND OF YOU, a powerful collection of weather-worn country originals. Masterfully produced by Juno award-winner Steve Dawson, the album is a rarity among the modern landscape of country and Americana - something deeply and honestly human from a man out of place and time.
Recorded at Steve Dawson’s Henhouse Studio in Nashville, the album was produced almost entirely on the spot, with no isolation. “We just sat in a room, played, and hit record,” says Patershuk. “I think that live feel comes though the speakers in the end.” The raw production of the album compliments the honesty of Patershuk’s songwriting. The gorgeously unshakable baritone grit of this master storyteller’s voice gives a real presence to these songs in the way that film grain lends a realism to a photograph or film. Patershuk’s vocals are complimented by those of American folk singer and songwriter Ana Egge. The only overdub on the whole album, Egge’s etherial vocals help drive home the humanity carried in Patershuk’s groundedly transcendent songs.
Growing up in Edmonton and other prairie towns across Canada, Patershuk was surrounded by the many facets of western Canadian prairie life, but never felt like he quite fit in. “Each place where I’ve lived has worked its way into who I am,” he says. “I think that kind of perspective, where there is knowledge, but not familiarity, is gold for songwriting.”
At the heart of the songs on I Was So Fond of You is the tragic loss of Patershuk’s sister, Clare, to a drunk driver in 2013, as “Harviestown” and the title track find him recalling and reflecting on her life and death. Patershuk is bound to time, fully human, fully honest, recognizing that the meaning of life only begins to emerge in hindsight. As such, many of the tracks on the album deal with tragedy - trying to make sense of it, contending with its repercussions and the questions that emerge. “Mean Coyotes” tells the story of an old horse who meets a tough end, while conveying the sense of powerlessness felt when tragedy strikes outside of our control. “Little Guitar” follows a man who buys a guitar after WWII and deals with the loss of his brother, considering how things that are rugged, beaten up, and well traveled, can, like us, be sources of beauty and solace in the face of a cruel world.
“I took that first gig in Teepee Creek very seriously,” says Patershuk. “At that point I had no idea if I had any real ability at all when it came to songwriting and singing, but I was going to give it a damn good shot.” And a damn good shot it was, because with I WAS SO FOND OF YOU, Matt Patershuk has revealed himself to be a true diamond in the rough, rugged landscape of modern Americana music: real matter, true grit, compressed under the pressures of human experience over time.
"The wise teacher," writes Kahlil Gibran, "does not bid you
to enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind... The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it." In other words, the wise master does not tell the apprentice what to say as much as help him uncover his creative voice. For nearly twenty years, guitarist and songwriter Jason Wilber has shadowed and collaborated with a legend, standing at the right hand of master folk singer-songwriter John Prine. He’s spent a good part of a lifetime as Prine’s lead guitarist on stages from Carnegie Hall to the London Palladium. As host of PRX’s In Search of a Song, he’s spent many hours in peer-to-peer conversation with musical greats such as Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Mary Gauthier, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Over these years, Wilber has proven to be not just a formidable guitarist, but an incisive singer-songwriter as well, uncovering a commanding creative voice that is on full display with his latest album, ECHOES.
Echoes, gives display to a significant – yet often overlooked – form of art: the cover song. For a cover to be worthwhile and to withstand the test of time, the artist must command the source material (the sketch to the finished work) with an original voice - not as an imitator or performer, but as a lion tamer. Any hint of fear, uncertainty, or timidity can cause the work to devour the artist. On Echoes, Jason Wilber proves that his many years surrounded by such an august cloud of creative witnesses has lent much to the confidence in his voice, both creatively and literally.
The tracklist on Echoes is comprised of deep cuts from disparate artists, spanning the relatively obscure (a track from Big Star frontman Chris Bell’s posthumous solo album and a 2010 cut from London-based alternative-rock-pop-soul collaboration Graffiti6) to household names such as Echo & The Bunnymen, the Supremes, Joni Mitchell, and David Bowie. Wilber’s voice, musicianship, and expert arrangement command the source material with such a deftly confident gentleness that the result is emotionally moving in a way that cover songs rarely are. He delivers every syllable, every note, with the utmost earnestness, making the songs sound as if he wrote them himself.
The penultimate track is “Paradise,” by John Prine. Of all the songs on Echoes, “Paradise” hews closest to the original. It’s a melancholy bit of memoir - a signature of Prine’s writing - that reflects on the loss of a bygone stretch of rural Americana that’s been disappeared by the coal industry. The song finds Wilber remembering not his own childhood, but Prine’s – a respectful nod by the apprentice toward the master who taught him so much. Here the lion tamer faces a wild beast with jowls too large for reigns. They stand and meet, recognizing their mutual power and prowess, and continue on in respect.
The creative master Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master, poorer is the painting which does not excel the sketch.” With Echoes, Jason Wilber proves his voice, accomplishing a feat of creative strength in taking the work of many masters and reinterpreting it as his own with utmost confidence.
Any artist who opens an album with a track
titled “North Idaho Zombie Rag” is surely not afraid of the dark, and Boise, Idaho jug band trio HILLFOLK NOIR make it clear that they have the market cornered when it comes to haunted Americana. A unique blend of string-band, punk, folk, and country blues (a sound that they call “junkerdash”), Hillfolk Noir’s latest album, POP SONGS FOR ELK, plays like a jukebox collection of ghostly tracks from various traditions and eras, mixed into something completely danceable and infectiously amusing.
Formed by husband-and-wife team Travis Ward (guitar, suitcase, harmonica, and vocals) and Alison Ward (musical saw, banjo, washboard, and vocals), and double-bassist Mike Waite, Hillfolk Noir recalls the Idaho that existed during the Great Depression—a bleak landscape of barren potato fields, empty-pan miners, deserted logging camps, and displaced Okies. But most intriguing is how the three-piece jug band interprets from this era an underlying energy, adding a colorful shine to an otherwise dark, blurry, dusty, and sepia-toned palette. In other words, as Seattle Weekly puts it, “Hillfolk Noir have fine-tuned their dark, Depression-era jangly blues to become one of the most incredible bands in Boise. They are as honest as they come.”
Most of the tracks on Pop Songs for Elk were recorded live and mixed straight to mono, create a timeless clarity to their sound. Newly-composed songs and jug-band chestnuts merge seamlessly in a ruckus of hard-driving rhythm guitar, beautiful vocal duets, eerie musical saw, and solid bass. There is an underlying dark humor to many of their songs—just give a listen to jug-band-style “Uncle Jake” or psychedelic “Sniffing Glue Blues.” But there’s also a sensitivity that shows the broad scope of Hillfolk Noir’s junkerdash sound, with Travis Ward’s lonesome croon and simple picking on tracks like “Poor Man’s Love Song” being at once strangely humorous and poignant. “Too authentic to be considered alt anything,” says Michael Deeds of the Idaho Statesman. “Ward is an evocative, charismatic singer-songwriter who embraces diverse shards of Americana. Time-warped kaleidoscopes —sparse, historically reverent and pretty terrific.” Wherever Hillfolk Noir fall on the spectrum of the sound they have coined “junkerdash,” Pop Songs for Elk with have you shuffling your feet and reaching for your whiskey glass.
The string and vocal trio LOW LILY (formerly Annalivia)
explores the roots and branches of American folk music with traditional influences and modern inspiration. The members of the trio have deep relationships to traditional music styles ranging from bluegrass to Irish, English, New England and Old Time Appalachian sounds. Their new self-titled EP brings these influences together in a collection of six songs which includes original and traditional material on three voices, guitars, mandolin, fiddle, and double bass.
Low Lily’s members are Liz Simmons on vocals and guitar, Flynn Cohen on vocals, guitar and mandolin, and Lissa Schneckenburger on vocals and fiddle. With guitar-wiz Scott Nygaard as co-producer, they recorded Low Lily, engineered by Alan Stockwell, in Brattleboro, VT. Additional musicians include Corey DiMario on double bass, and Fred Simmons on trombone. The album is a deep and intricate ‘postcard from the road’, with songs that are mainly about traveling. This EP follows the band’s last album The Same Way Down, when they were known as Annalivia, which debuted at #7 on the international folk DJ charts with a #1 played song on folk radio worldwide, and they reached #1 played artist in the Massachusetts RMR.
The album begins with their driving, moody take on the traditional song “House Carpenter”. One that highlights their arranging chops of traditional material, this track is a must-hear for anyone who likes traditional American songs with English roots. Track two takes on a more contemporary feel with fiddler and singer Lissa Schneckenburger’s original entitled “The Girl’s Not Mine”. Punctuated by three-part trombone lines, this song ties together the traditional/original flavor, launching into a fiddle solo in the middle that is reminiscent of a traditional tune. The third track is Flynn Cohen’s high energy instrumental entitled “Northern Spy”. Flynn and Lissa’s stellar and precise tune-playing on mandolin and fiddle respectively is well represented here, and Liz and Corey drive it on rhythm guitar and bass. The next two tracks are both about going on a journey– Liz’s original “Adventurer” and Flynn’s original “All Roads Lead to You”. Lushly arranged with 3-part vocal harmonies, plucked strings, warm fiddle lines, and a reprise of horns on “All Roads”, these songs take the listener to a more introspective place. The EP finale, the fiddle medley “Cherokee Shuffle/Lucky”, begins gently but lifts high in the end.
Bringing together modern sensibilities with respect for the roots of folk and fiddle music, this album exemplifies the new acoustic sound that is in revival today. Low Lily is a lush sampling of all this band has to offer as part of the new frontier of folk music.
In 2009, South Dakota folk songwriter Jami Lynn set out across the Great Plains of the United States to collect folk songs from the early settlement days in the Dakota Territory.
What she discovered, however, was a series of stories, characters, and places that emerged along the way and asked to be written about. Since then, Lynn has continued her journey with those elements, culminating in her latest album, Fall Is a Good Time to Die, six years in the making. Sitting in the tension between tradition and innovation, Fall Is a Good Time to Die is an intriguingly satisfying collection of songs that not only pays homage to the American roots tradition, but explores and pushes it further into the musical frontier.
Fall Is a Good Time to Die is the first album of Lynn’s comprised entirely of original songs, self-produced alongside her band, Dalton Coffey (dobro, mandolin) and Andrew Reinartz (bass). Lynn’s voice is reminiscent of Anaïs Mitchell’s, with a darker, wilder quality all her own, as if she were born to project her voice across the plains. With the power and dynamic of My Brightest Diamond, Lynn’s voice is complimented by her deceptively creative melodies.
As an undergraduate, Lynn started out studying classical voice while playing folk music with her band on weekends. But it soon became clear that her aspirations didn’t lie in opera, so she hit the road to “dig around in museums, archives, churches, and personal collections around South Dakota.” The result was a collection of songs “from my area.” “I came across a lot of obscure folk songs that I just had to work up and perform,” she says. During this time she spent a week in Texas with her grandparents. As she shared some of the stories and songs she was discovering, she says, “they poured out similar stories that were part of our family history… These other people, my great-great-grandparents, started floating around in my head and became narrators.” So she began to write. While her last album, Sodbusters (which included songs collected during her folk research), was “Kind of an ode to South Dakota,” Fall Is a Good Time to Die is even more so. “It’s not about the hardy settlers that we put on pedestals, but about everything else – the landscape, the animals, and the people that lived here before it was settled,” Lynn says. “I think the old folk songs are always present in my writing, but the stories on this album are my own stories, set up by thousands of years of stories told on the plains, by settlers, the Lakota people, and the ‘old’ people that preceded them in living here.”
One of these stories is told in “Wolf,” one of three songs on the album that Lynn refers to as the “South Dakota Predator Trilogy.” Though wolves had been largely eradicated from South Dakota for nearly a century, a few summers ago Lynn spotted one in the northeastern part of the state. “We were driving on a road near our farm in the middle of the day. And there it was, trotting in an open field next to the road in the middle of the day, completely unconcerned about anything,” she says. She speculated that the wolf must have made its way down from Northern Minnesota or Canada. The song imagines how it got there, as the long-lost predator of the plains recalls its days of provenance and tells of its finely tuned skill, instinct, and anatomy – the things that “keep me in the stories they all tell.”
In many ways, Jami Lynn’s music is a lot like that wolf, an ancient symbol trotting along in a modern landscape where its kind had once thrived. Her powerful voice, attention to detail and storytelling, and innovative mastery of dynamic, become a finely tuned homage to the plains of South Dakota. Fall Is a Good Time to Die is a sign of life, the resurrection of a species of storytelling and folklore – an art that seems mythic because today it is so uncommon to behold.
Late 19th-century New England had a remarkably diverse musical environment. Immigrants and tradespeople brought folk music traditions from around the world to the region and it became a marketplace of tones and rhythms, a melting pot of musical flavors and ideas.
This history has been lost today, but New Englander Brendan Taaffe channels this open-world idea on his latest album Can't Hold The Wheel. By fusing Zimbabwean mbira and African rhythms with American roots music–Irish and Appalachian, Taaffe and his band The New Line uncover the ties that bound these musical traditions together in a new world.
A multi-disciplinary multi-instrumentalist, Brendan Taaffe has a breadth of talent and experience spanning across multiple musical traditions. He’s written a book on Irish fiddling and holds a Masters in Traditional Music from the University of Limerick. He’s a prolific composer and conductor of Appalachian and shape-note inspired choral works, touring and leading workshops around the world. And, perhaps most strikingly, he’s an accomplished mbira player, having studied under Cosmas Magaya, a master of the Zimbabwean instrument which consists of a series of tuned metal keys fixed to a resonator. It is this sound which provides the grounding for all the arrangements on Can’t Hold The Wheel. Taking a cue from his New England forbears, Taaffe realizes that a sound can recast a song. “Treating the songs this way brings out new layers of meaning in these familiar songs,” says Taaffe. “I had never realized that ‘Train On the Island’ was a break-up song before, but the mbira brought out the story. I think it’s because the sound of the mbira is so evocative, perched on the knife edge between joy and sorrow, and that brings out the poignancy of these old songs.”
In addition to the mbira and Taaffe’s own guitar, pump organ, and vocals, The New Line is comprised of some of New England’s best roots musicians to be found today: Adam Hurt on gourd banjo, Stefan Amidon (Sam Amidon, Natalie Haas) on percussion and vocals, Colin McCaffrey on electric guitar and bass, Mike Olson on trumpet, and Heather Masse (The Wailin’ Jennys, Joy Kills Sorrow) on vocals. Can’t Hold The Wheel is not an attempt at extravagance, but rather a master class in simplicity. Taaffe’s respect for these different musical traditions, as well as his experience and skill as a conductor and arranger, shows in how effortlessly music blends together. This music doesn’t sound written. It sounds grown out of soil and time.
With Can’t Hold the Wheel, The New Line keep close to their New England roots by simply allowing something new to develop. And at the helm, Brendan Taaffe brings out the best in his collaborators, knowing when to trim or add more. Like a farmer, Taaffe knows that pruning yields the best fruit. His arrangements are those of a cultivator, paring things down to their roots until they flourish. These songs are the sound of life cycles, effortlessly expressing the sustainable nature of folk traditions, always being trimmed back to grow again, returning stronger, newer, and more fruitful with each generation.
When you first hear the vocal explorations of Moira Smiley, you might think she has a restless spirit. On her new album, Laughter Out of Tears, she moves between Appalachian roots music, Balkan polyphony, choral compositions, multi-voice original songwriting, and Scandinavian harmonies. But listen closer and you realize you’re hearing the work of a true musical polyglot.
Smiley takes her musical explorations seriously, and her new album is almost a travelogue mirroring her recent voyages as one of the most in-demand roots vocalists in the US. Recently returned from an international tour with the critically acclaimed tUnE-yArDs, she’s releasing her newest album and looking forward to more collaborations with artists like Solas, Tim O’Brien, Jayme Stone and more. It’s this spirit of collaboration and community that’s so strong in Laughter Out of Tears, from direct collaborations with her own group of vocalists, VOCO, to the innovative, viral community that Smiley calls "The Choir of You." Like a true traveler, Smiley knows that we journey to find other people, not other places.
Moira Smiley’s musical interests were first formed growing up on a small farm in Vermont. From an early age, she forged an eclectic relationship with music, listening to LPs of Appalachian banjo and Simon & Garfunkel, and rounding this out with weekly shape-note hymn sings with friends and family. “Music always meant escape into beauty,” she says, “it was a way to relate warmly and strongly with other people.” It became the language in which she thrived and communicated. Fast-forward to today and it’s clear that Smiley has become fluent in music. With her far-reaching knowledge of music traditions, Smiley has since sought to explore the overlap between polyphonic songwriting and improvisation within a communal setting of voices. In 2006 she founded VOCO and over the course of three albums Moira Smiley & VOCO have explored American and European folk music with ground-breaking improvisation and vocal harmony.
Laughter Out of Tears grapples with the grief of Smiley’s father’s passing by moving even deeper into her world of collaboration. Among the vocalists tapped to be part of VOCO on this album, Smiley was looking for other women who know the trials of the road. Women who draw their strength from the risk and unpredictable joy of live performance. She wanted to translate that kind of bravery to the songs on her album. She also wanted to expand the circle from her own network of fellow performers to her audiences. This became her viral project, The Choir of You (featured on five tracks on the album). “People could download the tracks from my website and add their own voice,” says Smiley. Putting all this submitted audio together became the highlight of her year and has helped frame the purpose of the album. And while Laughter Out of Tears continues to develop Moira Smiley & VOCO’s sound, combining polyphonic songwriting with European and Appalachian folk song, the songs this time around are far more personal, with Smiley’s original songs exploring her recent journey through the loss of her father. “It’s about moving out of sorrow into a place of joy, of laughter,” she says. “It feels more intimate. There’s much more of me at my most tender here.” And if there’s more of Smiley in this album, there’s more of her friends too, a glorious community of curious, restless musicians and artists, a true community.